Leading a group of current Tufts Mountain Club members, John “Whitey” White is ice climbing at Flume Gorge, at the southern end of Franconia Ridge.
The ice is fairly wet today on account of the warmer weather. The group climbs all day, Whitey always there to give someone a belay or show up the younger crowd with his footwork and unquenchable desire to climb again and again and again. He’s eager to give beta—or climbing tips—to students as they ascend the ice pillars that have formed alongside the frozen river on which they were standing. Whitey never gives up on the climbers; he’s always encouraging, pushing them to keep going.
After a full day of climbing, Whitey treats everyone to a meal at the Woodstock Inn, a common stomping ground for TMC members after a trip. Members joke around as he tells them stories of his days as a Tufts student, his pumpkin-ing escapades and other pranks he has pulled. He reminisces about a “Kids Day” event at school, for which members of the Mountain Club were actually approved to climb buildings.
“We would help kids rappel down what is now Barnum,” he said.
Today, White, now 66, is a Tufts Mountain Club legend. TMC newcomers often come to the Loj for the first time to find him hanging out in the kitchen, an older man hanging out with a few upperclassmen. It’s an odd sight: someone that could be someone’s grandfather, talking with current TMC members.
Whitey was born in Northern Maine. The oldest of two boys, he was an active child. He and his brother were very different growing up; Whitey, a mechanic since college, explains that his brother is now a professor at Boston University teaching civics.
Whitey has three daughters, ages 37, 31 and 30, respectively. His oldest daughter lives right by his current home in Newburyport, Mass., and his middle child, Liz, is working as a research scientist out in California. His youngest daughter, Abigail, is a doctor of physical therapy.
Since retiring this past Labor Day (a coincidence that makes him very proud), Whitey has hiked 35 of the 48 mountains over 4,000 feet in New Hampshire, dubbed the “4,000 Footers” — a challenge that many New England outdoorsmen and women take upon themselves.
Whitey said that his interest in the outdoors today doesn’t come necessarily from his childhood, but rather from the Mountain Club.
“Hiking [for me] was a Mountain Club thing,” Whitey said.
He said that his outdoor adventures in the White Mountain National Forest began with “bunny climbs” — which he quickly added that this was a completely politically correct phrase at the time — in the 1960s, notably Lonesome Lake and Mt. Hale. When he first got involved in the club, he explained nostalgically, TMC was a “social club rather than something athletic.”
Whitey didn’t come to the Loj, which at the time was the second A-Frame (the current building is the Loj’s fifth iteration), until 1967, his sophomore year at Tufts.
During Whitey’s first trip, he joined a friend of his on a dune buggy as they cruised up to New Hampshire. After running out of gas — the buggy didn’t have a gas gauge — they arrived. What he came upon was what he described as a “pretty rustic” Loj. The A-Frame had no insulation, and members huddled around a wood-burning stove in the center of the big room.
“[We] were really forced into a tight group; there were no corners in the A-Frame,” Whitey said.
He said that the Loj embodied the spirit and culture of the club at the time. Tasks, such as cleaning and meal times, were completed with “military precision.” People constantly went on trips, since they would otherwise freeze sitting around in the Loj all day.
At night, Whitey recounted sitting on rudimentary wooden benches around the fire, people sitting as close as they could to stay warm. Everyone would give each other back rubs, primarily to keep the blood flow going.
“[Back rubs] seem kind of strange, but it was what you did to stay warm,” he said.
Nowadays, according to Whitey, you can find plenty of sections in the Loj books — a primary documentation of different stories written down by TMCers over the years — from the days of the A-Frame that begin with “You know it’s cold when…”
Whitey also had countless stories of adventures canoeing or kayaking down the Pemigewasset River, or of Tom Hanover, another alum, leading spelunking trips in the New Hampshire area.
“Wherever there was fun to be had, we were there,” Whitey says.
Whitey said that while the club was as accepting as it is today, it also operated fairly independently from the university.
“The Mountain Club was very autonomous,” he said. “There was very little affiliation with the school.”
He went into detail about how he and other members of TMC provided much, if not all, of the maintenance for the third Loj, known as the Farmhouse — a former petting zoo and barn. Whitey talked about the “work weekends” that they, the members of the club, took to fix up the Loj and keep it running efficiently.
“That would’ve horrified the university,” Whitey said.
According to Whitey, they laid a rudimentary stone road and cut down trees with handsaws and axes to clear an area so they could, of course, play soccer.
The result, Whitey said, was “kind of like a spa.” He pointed to the third Loj as a turning point for the club’s culture; in the A-Frame, people were outdoors all of the time. “You had to do something,” he said.
In the farmhouse, however, he says “You didn’t have to go out.” More students were coming up simply to lounge around all weekend. People would stay up late and play bridge and rock music.
“It was self-serving then,” he said.
When asked how the club has changed since his day, Whitey mentioned the gear that TMC owns.
“I’m impressed that you are a lot more technical,” he said.
When Whitey was a student, the club wasn’t as accessible because it lacked the equipment that TMC boasts today. He also commented on the way in which today’s TMC reaches out to new members.
“We didn’t go out of our way to recruit people,” Whitey said. “[TMC today provides] a great opportunity … The Mountain Club is performing a service by showing people the outdoors.”
Whitey says that it is imperative that people in TMC “get out and do it.” Even today, he lives by those words, continuing to explore the outdoors in new ways.
He said that Tufts alum and TMC member Jeff Longcor — or, as many know him, J-Lo — got him into ice climbing only recently, when he attended VICEfest, a huge ice climbing festival J-Lo founded a few years ago. The day after the festival, he said that he went to Lahouts, a big outdoor sporting goods store a few miles from the Loj, and bought all the ice climbing gear he could.
Whitey has also picked up snowboarding, taking advantage of the senior midweek discount at some of the local New Hampshire ski resorts.
On weekends, Whitey spends time at an alumni Loj that was built by many Tufts’ alums from the 1970s. He proudly declared that these folks are “hardcore, the A-Frame members.” These TMCers looked for a property in which they could enjoy the beauty of New Hampshire and all that they had experienced as Tufts students without infringing upon the current TMC members.
According to Whitey, they found a 70-acre property in Rumney, New Hampshire. They cleared the area, cutting down trees and other debris. He said that after they brought in a contractor to put in the foundation, the members took it upon themselves to build the alumni Loj; they finished the process in four days.
“And,” he added, “It had to have a dance floor.”
Whitey is still itching for the next voyage, the next opportunity to discover something amazing about the outdoors, and subsequently about himself.
“I have to keep moving before I seize up,” Whitey says.
*Both the author and photographer of this article are members of TMC.